AS Byatt’s 1990 Booker-winning novel Possession represents the literary apogee of the dual-track, metafictional detective story, which follows modern-day characters as they discover a historical period, as well as taking the reader directly to that very period. Attempted by writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Mario Vargas Llosa, this technique makes perhaps its first appearance in Indian fiction in Priya Vasudevan’s debut novel, Middle Time.
For a first-time writer, Vasudevan is to be admired for undertaking such an ambitious project. The two tracks in the novel follow the lives of a dizzying array of characters in 16th century Vijayanagara, and 1990s Chennai where Maya, a public interest lawyer, unintentionally encounters the world of Hampi after the mysterious death of one of her clients. ‘Middle Time’ is also the name of a text within the novel, a battered old Tamil paperback that contains a story of the last days of the Vijayanagara empire.
The latter tale chronicles the brutal murder of a young mother and the search for the culprit, as well as the rise of Achale, a courtesan whose talents and charms elevate her to a position of power in the Vijayanagara court. As in Byatt’s Possession, of primary concern to Vasudevan are the parallels, real and imagined, between her contemporary and historical narratives. The novel is evidently the product of considerable research. But the scale of the project and the accuracy of the historical detail are not matched by novelistic skill.
Despite the great pace at which the action unfolds, there is none of the narrative thrust a detective novel depends upon: the plot consists of an endless series of events, new characters, and surprises, without the genuine building up of suspense. The characters do not possess any vivid interior life; the one exception is the enigmatic Achale, a genuinely fascinating fictional creation who is both charismatic and fragile.
Above all, the novel is let down by its language. In the contemporary sections, the narrative is often ornate without being elegant, filled with mixed metaphors and clichés. At other times, however, particularly in the final chapters, the writing is much more taut and effective. Yet throughout the Hampi narrative, Vasudevan is unable to find a voice to fit the period, and both narration and dialogue relapse into an anachronistic diction that is, at times, absurd. Thus the advancing Muslim invaders are greeted by a town crier yelling, “The Mohammedans are coming!” An abundance of such moments characterise this original and ambitious, but ultimately, unsuccessful first novel.
Keshava Guha is a Bangalore-based writer